Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

You Don’t Look Like Him; He Looks Like You!

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2004

I wanted to do another post or two about Christmas song lyrics before Christmas, but then the ice storms hit and knocked out our power, and we’ve been kind of busy since then. But as we left our cold, cold house to find someplace warmer, Doug looked at all the icicles hanging from the eaves, and said,

Those icicles look like Christmas lights hanging from the roof!

It was true, they did, but I had to laugh, since the idea is that the little dangly Christmas lights that have been so popular the last few years are supposed to look like icicles, not the other way around. The icicles don’t look like lights; the lights look like icicles!

It reminded me of something my wife said on the way to her mom’s house for Thanksgiving, as she looked at some snow-covered pine trees on the way:

The trees look like they’ve been flocked!

Also true, but you flock Christmas trees (i.e., spray white foamy stuff on them) to make them look like they’re covered with snow. Snow doesn’t look like flocking; flocking looks like snow! (Well, at least the more conventional white flocking does. I don’t know what the green, pink, or totally freaky black flocking you can get is supposed to look like.)

This kind of reversal happened one more time after the big ice storm. Doug was telling how he’d been able to catch some snowflakes on his tongue, and you know what they tasted like?

The snowflakes tasted like snow cones!

No, snow cones are supposed to taste like snow (that’s had flavored syrup poured on it); snow doesn’t taste like snow cones!

But isn’t resemblance a symmetric relationship? If X looks like Y, isn’t it necessarily true that Y looks like X? Well, yes, but linguists have noticed that other factors than just similarity enter into the syntax and semantics of verbs such as resemble, be similar to, or look like. Specifically, the direct object has to be the previously existing item, or at least, the item more familiar to the participants in the conversation, as illustrated in contrasts like this one:

  • He looks just like his father.

  • ?His father looks just like him.

Even when you can turn the direct object into a subject by passivizing the verb, it still has to be the more familiar item, as seen here:

  • Some people resemble the president.
  • ?The president is resembled by some people.

I’ve also heard of kids saying things like, “I’m not your sister; you’re my sister!” In any case, those icicles didn’t look like anything at all after I came back the next day and knocked them all down with a big pole. But they did make a pleasant tinkling sound during the process.

One Response to “You Don’t Look Like Him; He Looks Like You!”

  1. bkmarcus said

    I seem to recall a New Yorker cartoon from childhood that showed a mother and daughter walking in the city as it began to snow; the little girl is pointing to the snowflakes and the mother is explaining, “No dear, that’s not fallout, that’s called snow!”

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